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Crossing Boundaries: Insights for Ethics of Extractive Knowledge from Post-Colonial Contexts

Carter Vance
Mar 10, 2017 · 12 min read

One of the key insights that post-colonial theory has brought to the world of research, and academia more broadly, is the historically fictional, and perhaps impossible, notion of research as “neutral” or “objective”. Though articulations about the deeply ideological nature of certain seemingly “neutral” practices or observations within research do have antecedents in, for instance, Marx’s critique of classical political economy as a product of bourgeois ideology or the work of early Western feminists in dismantling “biological” explanations of female inferiority, post-colonial critiques in relation to research add at least two important conceptual devices which researchers must grapple with.

Firstly, that “colonization almost invariably implies a relation of structural domination” (Mohanty 61), meaning that structural character of knowledge production within such a relationship will tend towards the same domination, even if presented as being outside of it. To choose an easy example, a relationship of colonial domination “opens up” subjects to researchers coming from the dominant social group via the implicit backing of force by the colonial state which otherwise would not have been available to them. This is true even if the researcher themselves has no direct relationship with that state and may be notionally opposed to its policies of force, but nevertheless is likely in a position of benefitting from both its protection (which is not afforded or afforded in a much truncated/contradictory fashion to the colonized subject) and funding (as researchers are usually associated with institutions receiving state funds). At a deeper level, colonization structures a relationship of domination within the discourse of knowledge itself: which historical accounts are designated as the “right” ones, which ways of knowing are considered “valid” for scientific purposes, as so on. Discourses of history are particular important in this respect as sociopolitical struggles for Indigenous rights, “have usually involved contested accounts of the past by colonizers and colonized” (Smith 33), which, in some sense, is also a contest for the validity of particular research methodologies[1]. All of this marks research as having a political character within colonial and post-colonial contexts, even, and perhaps especially, where it professes to have no such agenda.

Secondly, the effective relating of research to the colonial political and social context, which involved the exploitative extraction of land, labour and natural resources, leads to the insight that “research is unambiguously extractive” (Robbins 311) . This is true in both the literal and metaphorical senses. In the literal because researchers are paid, in many instances quite well, to record and analyze for broader consumption the knowledge and experiences of others who are, in most cases, worse off in a material sense than they are. Questions of compensation, of primary benefit and of institutional power are very much at play here, particularly as it is usually viewed as “coercive” to compensate research participants at anything other than a token amount. This creates a conflict even for the researcher who wishes to see her work to contribute a benefit to the community she is working with and consciously constructs the research in such a way as to actively involve the community and avoid obvious misrepresentational pitfalls. Firstly, no researcher can wholly control how their research is interpreted and used by others. Though there are methods to control this discourse somewhat (writing corrections or rebuttals, clarifying intentions within the initial publication, workshopping the material with a diverse group of interlocutors prior to publication), the reality is that misinterpretation from author intent, willful or otherwise, remains a large problem with how research is applied in a policy context. This is particularly true in the context of marginalized peoples or cultures, where dominant powers may be relying solely on the researcher’s work to get a sense of what “ought to be done” in regards to them. This worry is powerfully articulated by Khan (2004) in her discussion of whether her research into gender-discrimination in the Pakistani legal system might be used as justification for further Western military intervention in the region. Secondly, even if the research is interpreted in manner intended by the author, and even if this is a more-or-less accurate reflection of the realities and desires of her participants, there is no guarantee that this will actually lead to the changes that researcher sought. Indeed, many well-conceived and well-executed projects simply sit on the shelves of universities without having much of an impact outside of academia. In this case, though, the researcher is still compensated, while the community which she has extracted the knowledge from is not. When placed in a post-colonial context, this relationship forms a distinct parallel with the discourses around “development” where, “colonialism solicited development as a way of organizing a form of hegemony appropriate to the expansion of capitalism beyond Europe” (Wainwright 13). In other words, research incorporates those knowledges to the wider systemic base of available knowledge to the academy, but it does not necessarily, and in fact rarely, does so in a way which actually benefits those it “incorporates” from.

In the more metaphorical sense, the Robbins’ insight that “research is theft” refers to manner in which, “recording, interpreting and analyzing the world is a way to appropriate and control it” (311). The ability to control how societies and peoples different from one’s own will be perceived and acted upon is no small amount of power, taking as it does that ability of representation from the people themselves. Nevertheless, if research is “a theft in which many wish to participate, including local and marginal communities” (Robbins 311), for a variety of reasons and in a variety of forms, then it is not enough simply to say that one is, as a researcher, not going to touch the colonial question, and simply “stay at home”. Not the least of which is because, at least in the Canadian instance, “home” is itself a colonial construction, but also because, even if researchers did not, due ethical concerns, go out and work with these communities, other actors with openly exploitative purposes (multinational corporations, imperialist-minded governments, etc.) would. These actors would then have that same power of representation, in addition to their existing economic and political power. The decision not to act, in other words, is not an ethical “get out of jail free” card, and it carries its own risks. The job of the ethical researcher, therefore, should be to construct research in accordance with, “complex political networks — mutual exploitation, mutually agreed upon” (Robbins 322), such that there is at least a better chance of the research having a beneficial element for its subject community.

The question does remain, though, are the post-colonial and otherwise Indigenous critiques of “research”, in terms of its history, its assumptions and its reproduction of relationships of domination, particular to the colonial context (and even then to the particular colonial context in which they are written), or do they hold more general insights even for those researchers who are not seeking to cross the colonized/colonizer boundary? I would argue that, with some necessary caveats and points of ambiguity, the insights provided by the articles discussing the decolonization of knowledge and research methodology point to critical areas of reflection for researchers, regardless of the context of their work.

It is firstly important to recognize that “post-colonial” or “Indigenous” perspectives in relation to research, both as it is articulated in a Western context and what variously constitutes “knowledge” is neither homogenous nor static. In the first instance, because “the binary of colonizer/colonized does not take into account, for example, the development of different layerings which have occurred within each group and across the two groups” (Smith 27). On the first side of this divide, the tendency has been to identify as “Western” or “colonial” that base of power and ideological understanding which characterizes the dominant tendencies within the colonizing societies. What this ignores is the extent to which such ontologies constitute tools of domination both within the colonial context and within the “home” society and the extent to which oppositional knowledges are articulated in both cases. For example, at the time of the conquest of India, did the working class Englishman share the same ontological assumptions about the desirability of capitalism, the glorious nature of the Royal family, and so on as the upper classes which led the conquests? Judging only by the way in which the upper classes of the time tended to speak and write about the lower classes at the time, this is would be a dubious assertion. An analysis which posits an essential divide between a homogenous “Western” and a homogenous “non-Western” set of values, beliefs and knowledge would tend to elide the very real material and discursive divides by class within both of those societies. A similar point could be made in regards to feminist or queer ontologies vis-à-vis dominant discourses within Western contexts. In the reverse instance, the mistake should not be made that all “colonized” people share an essential worldview, set of interests and perspective. Firstly, for the rather obvious reason that the cultures and experiences of different peoples who were colonized differed greatly in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods. Secondly, it ignores the internal hierarchies and divisions within each society by homogenizing the various experiences of colonial power and post-colonial life. As Mohanty states, “the interests of the urban, middle-class, educated Egyptian housewives . . . could surely not be seen as being the same as those of their uneducated, poor maids” (72). The latter may articulate a form of knowledge which acts in primary opposition to the internal social power of the former, even as this relationship is situated with a broader sphere of Western political and economic dominance. Recourse to a “post-colonial” critique which situates the colonizer/colonized dichotomy as the only, or the primarily important, determinative social conflict has the paradoxical effect of marginalizing other forms or interpretations of knowledge.

This is not to say that working class people, women, or groups identifying with queer sexualities did not or do not share racist or colonialist ontologies about differently situated peoples or cultures. As the ideological presumptions of socially dominant groups tend to become the broader “common sense” of those societies, in a sense of Gramscian hegemony, it would be surprising if this were not the case for at least some of them. Simply because an individual or group’s knowledge set or ontology may be “oppositional” in one context, this does not mean that they are not upholding dominant power interests in another. In fact, certain oppositional discourses may actively, if unwittingly, reinforce colonial assumptions when transposed onto the “Third World” from their initially articulated context. For instance, the “assumption of woman as already constituted and coherent group with identical interests and desires” (Mohanty 64) within certain forms of Western feminism can have the effect of rendering “every society into a simple opposition between the powerless (read: women and the powerful (read: men)” (67). This ignores the differential expressions of power and oppression across different societies, as well as having the effect of reifying the identity of “Third World woman” under a Western perspective as inherently powerless and in need of help in an ahistorical sense. It is also true that, historically and, though perhaps to a lesser extent, still, the individuals actually performing research within colonial and post-colonial societies tend to come from these internally dominant groups (i.e. they tended to be upper European class men). For this reason, it is fair to conclude, at the very least, that knowledge produced under such circumstances of social inequity deserves to be subject to scrutiny on both the question of who produced it and why it was produced.

However, this assumption of an essentially “outsider” researcher, though true in many cases, deserves a degree of scrutiny and problematizing. In some cases, researchers come from the communities that they research (even if they are now part of an academic or other similar institution), in some cases researchers are not formally affiliated to a larger institution and may be performing work for local benefit at a local level (on behalf of a community group, for instance) and in some instances a researcher may be “between cultures” (for example, being originally from a Global South nation but having lived in a Global North one for a long period of time). This is not an exhaustive list of what might be called ambiguous social positions that a researcher may occupy in relation to their subjects, nor should it negate the fact that by mere dint of being a “researcher”, one is in a position of some social power. It does, however, point to the way in which reflexivity and use of the embodied identity can be a tool for disrupting colonial and otherwise oppressive research forms. By interrogating one’s one variable social positioning, and thereby troubling the “objectivity” of the knowledge one generates as a result, the wider system of social inequality which the research exists in can be, to some extent, grappled with. In this sense, the degree of ambiguous or contradictory positioning of the researcher can be a tool for troubling the discourse of “objective” research knowledge by acknowledging and incorporating insights coming from both positions of power and the lack thereof.

It is in these positions of positional ambiguity, which will be more or less prominent depending on the Post-colonial theory has sometimes been accused of reproducing an oppositional binary between “Western” and “non-Western” peoples, knowledges and ontologies. This can, in turn, ignore internal hierarchies of power, oppositional knowledge articulations within each individual society, and the potential for unwitting reification and rendering as ahistorical “Third World” societies. There is also the potential, in exercising a critique of dominant Western research methodologies, that one falls into the trap identified by Latour of “not aiming at the right target” (225) and taking an overbroad critique which dispenses with intellectual rigor entirely, seeking solely to discredit all that has come before rather than selectively and appropriately critiquing harmful aspects.

What, then, is to be done in regards to making knowledge extraction and productive more ethical[2], in both those instances where the colonial question is directly in play and those where it is not? Firstly, researchers working within institutions should take on the responsibility of making these institutions more just and equitable. This could include campaigning for fair wages for internal service staff, defunding research which perpetuates active harms against marginalized groups, demands for greater educational access and diversified hiring and so on. Secondly, there is a necessity of challenging the “rules” of the broader discipline in which one works in order to make greater room for Indigenous methodologies[3] to be recognized “valid”. There is a danger of appropriation in performing these methodologies one’s self as a person “outside” (to varying degrees) of them, which points to the necessity both of constructing research in a manner by which knowledge is mutually constitutive and of engaging and collaborating with Indigenous scholars already working in these idioms. There are other potential methods of addressing these issues as well as others which relate to bridging the social power differentials between researcher and subject, but these are mainly context and issue dependent and thus resist clear prescriptions.

Incorporating the insights of Indigenous methodologies and critiques of Western research practices into one’s work should not imply, “a total rejection of all theory or research or Western knowledge” (Smith 39). Nor should it imply an attempt to identify and articulate a “totally oppositional” form of knowledge to the status quo of unequal power. This form of knowledge is just as much a falsehood as the “totally objective” knowledge sought by the ideals of the Enlightenment and ignores the contradictory positions of privilege and oppression that both researchers and subjects find themselves in. Recognizing the great harm that has been done historically and continues to be done by research in treating persons outside of the narrowly-defined “universal subject” (implicitly European, male and above all “rational”) as wells of knowledge to be exploited in the same manner as crude oil is but a first step. Researchers studying all marginalized peoples should not make a similar mistake in positioning their subjects as singular, homogenous and outside of history. As “the struggle to assert and claim humanity” (Smith 26) has been central to Indigenous, and other, political struggles, so too should a methodology which honours this claim to humainity be the guiding principle of research in these fields.


Khan, Shahnaz. 2005. Refiguring the Native Informant: Positionality in the Global Age. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30 (4): 2017–2037.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. Why has critique run out of steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30: 225–248.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.1988. Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses in Feminist Review. 30 (1): 61–88

Robbins, Paul. 2009. Research is Theft: Environmental Inquiry in a Postcolonial World in Approaches to Human Geography, eds. S. Aitken and G.Valentine, London: Sage. pp. 311–324

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai.1999. Imperialism, History, Writing, Theory in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books. pp. 19–41.

Wainwright, Joel. 2008. Introduction: Capitalism Qua Development. in Decolonizing Development: Colonial Power and the Maya, Oxford: Blackwell, Pp. 1–38.

[1] A good example of this is the role of oral histories within Indigenous cultures of North America, and the battles over their inclusion within legal proceedings

[2] With the caveat that the question of wholly ethical within a highly unequal and exploitative world such as the one we live in may be impossible, or at least requiring of remedies outside of the purely research

[3] It is appropriate to note here that there is, of course, no singular “Indigenous” methodology or related ontology, but rather a wide variety across cultures depending on each of their ways of knowing

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